How to Make Money Off a Blog: Takeaways From The Writer’s Bundle 2015

April 2, 2015

I told myself I wouldn’t write a recap on The Writer’s Bundle recap this year, because I have so many other things I want to work on.

But the truth is, this blog is how I process. It’s how I organize wins and losses, and how I determine priorities for myself and my team. I often refer to blog posts years later to remind myself both of big-picture developments and details behind what we’ve accomplished, and I know I’ll want a wrap-up on this year’s bundle sale to refer to next year.

Plus, if I’m going to think through what worked from this project, I might as well share it with you, right? Why not let others learn from our experience?

So here’s how The Writer’s Bundle went this year.

The Writer's Bundle at The Write Life

Preparing for a big launch

The Writer’s Bundle is a three-day sale my team organizes at The Write Life. We package together ebooks and courses from about 10 creators, and sell it at a massive discount. The benefit to readers is obvious: they get access to high-quality resources at a fraction of the price.

That’s the big reason we run this offer, to provide awesome information and value to our readers. But the earnings from this deal also allow us to continue to run the website; a flash sale is a smart way to make money off a blog.

We offered the bundle last year for the first time, when The Write Life was just nine months old. You can read all the details of last year’s sale, but here’s a summary: we sold 435 bundles at $79 over three days, earning $34,000 in revenue and $27,000 after affiliate payouts.

After doing well last year, you’d think I’d feel super confident about the sale this year. But the truth is, I was nervous. Since our community has grown a lot over the last year, I’d set high goals for the bundle, hoping we’d earn enough to pay for the site and reinvest in some nice-to-haves like a redesign and course launch. My team and I put a lot of work into organizing the deal, so I wanted us to get a lot out of it.

Here’s the tricky thing about a flash sale: it only last three days. For many reasons, that’s great; it creates urgency for buyers, and it means you’re only glued to your laptop for three days. But for other reasons, like if you hit a major snag, it can work against you. If something goes wrong, you don’t have much time to recover.

That’s why I was nervous in the weeks leading up to the deal, because I knew everything had to go completely smoothly for us to hit our targets.

So, how’d the bundle sale go?

It went awesome! We hit our goals, managing to DOUBLE our revenue from last year.

Here are some of the bottom-line numbers:

Sale days: 3

Products included: 9

Total retail value of products included: $1,076

Our price: $99

How many bundles we sold: 732

How many affiliates we had on board: 23

How many affiliates sold more than 20 bundles: 7

Affiliate commission for each sale: 30-50 percent, depending on whether the affiliate had a product in the bundle

Total revenue: $72,000

Revenue after paying affiliates: $49,000

Unique visitors to the site during the three-day sale: 21,600

Newsletter subscribers when the deal launched: ~25,000

Conversion rate of the sales page (percentage of people who bought the bundle after viewing the sales page): 9.4 percent

A quick note about this last calculation, because it’s a ridiculously high conversion rate. That’s partly because this was an awesome deal, and maybe partly because we had a convincing sales page.

But people who landed on this sales page had already made the decision to click through to the sale after hearing about it through a newsletter or a link on Twitter or some other announcement. So we’re looking at a group of people who already had some interest in the sale when they visited the page. Still, 9.4 percent is amazing, and even higher than our 8.4 percent last year.

Why’d we do better than last year?

Check out this chart, which shows how this year’s sales compare to last year. The chart is part of a dashboard my data-genius husband put together to help us make real-time adjustments as the sale progressed, and we rallied around it throughout the sale, watching that red line go up, up, up.

The Write Life bundle: Sales comparison

The Write Life bundle: Compare last year’s sales to this year’s (click for big version)

As you can see, we followed a similar sales pattern this year (red line) as last year (blue line), but with more sales from the get-go, and a steeper sale curve near the end of the three days.

The dashboard also showed a breakdown of sales by affiliate, plus other interesting visualizations. You read more about how we used the dashboard on Ben’s blog.

In addition to the dashboard, we kept a close eye on real-time Google Analytics, to see how many people were on the sales page and site at any given time. It’s such a granular feature that this is one of the few times it’s worth using it!

Of course, data is worth nothing unless you understand the details behind it. Which bring us to the big question: What did we do differently this year that allowed us to double our revenue?

I attribute our gains this year to a few factors:

We’ve done it before

With one successful sale under our belt, we knew what we were doing this year. We knew where we were likely to see the biggest bang for our buck, and we focused there, rather than taking the throw-spaghetti-against-the-wall approach.

The biggest difference is how we reached our audience. Last year, we made the mistake of focusing on celebrity bloggers, several of whom were too busy for us and didn’t end up promoting the sale even though they said they would. This year, we skipped those people altogether and went right for highly active niche bloggers, who had more to gain by partnering with us. This helped us make more sales.

Last year we also spent $3,500 on a dedicated newsletter buy from an old-school writing brand. They had a big list, so we figured we’d make back our investment and then some. But turns out traditional brands often don’t have highly engaged lists (it’s surprising, but true), and we lost money on that bet.

This year, we only spent advertising money in two places: on Facebook ads (we made money on those, but not enough to move the needle) and a dedicated newsletter with a writing brand that’s run by a blogger. That newsletter cost far less than what we spent with the traditional brand last year, and we earned back our investment and then some.

Our community has grown

Over the last year, we’ve put a ton of effort into growing our newsletter list specifically, and we’ve also increased our following on social media and boosted our website traffic to about 115,000 unique visitors monthly. This all paid off for the sale, as The Write Life community downloaded about 155 bundles, compared with about 100 last year. (The rest of the sales came from affiliates and advertising.)

To be honest, when I ran our projections, I thought we’d get more buys than that; our email list is now about three times the size it was last time we ran this deal. But not all newsletter subscribers are equally valuable, and I think some of our efforts to grow our list — mainly hitting new website visitors with a pop-up — might have watered it down a little so it didn’t convert as well as expected. One of the post-bundle tasks on my list is to clean our newsletter list, so we’re not paying MailChimp for inactive subscribers, those who haven’t opened it in the last few months.

Our affiliates sold more

Several people told me they felt like the bundle “was everywhere,” but the truth is, we only had a few more affiliates participate than last year. What we did have, however, were better-performing affiliates.

Seven of our affiliates sold more than 20 bundles, and those are the people you really want promoting your sale. We had a number of affiliates who sold just a few bundles, and while we value every affiliate, the ones with large, niche communities really helped make this a success. One of my favorite parts about running this bundle is writing checks to affiliates; it’s fun to help other bloggers earn!

Price increase

Because we had so many high-value products in this year’s bundle, we were able to increase the price of the package to $99. Last year it sold for $79.

For bundles we sold to our community — when we didn’t have to pay an affiliate cut — that’s an increase of $20 per sale, a serious increase over last year. Even for affiliate sales, when we paid 30-50 percent to the affiliate, that increase in price went a long way toward boosting our bottom line. Some affiliates said they thought they sold fewer bundles because of the price increase, but in the end this worked in our favor.

Other takeaways and lessons

Two other takeaways stick out from our experience this year.

1. It’s worth trying to make a sales projection. Before the sale, we put lots of information together — number of affiliates, conversion rates, how much our community had grown in the last year — to make an educated guess on how much we might earn from the sale.

We did this so we could create goals and targets that we’d then use to determine whether the project was a success.

Our projections ended up being right on point: we hoped to net about $45,000 after affiliate payouts, and we did.

But like last year, how we reached that point happened totally differently than we expected. Some of the affiliates we expected to sell lots of bundles barely sold any, and other affiliates who we didn’t expect much from brought home the gold. We sold fewer bundles to our own community than we’d projected, but sales via our newsletter ad outperformed our guess, partly making up the difference.

So even though it’s difficult to predict how this kind of sale will go, it’s worth making projections, so long as you’re conservative.

2. You can’t always count on affiliates. Quite a few affiliates who expressed interest in participating decided not to at the last minute, which messed with our projections. Most had decided to promote their own products that week, or realized their promotional calendar was too full this quarter, or simply got the dates wrong and didn’t plan well.

This is one of the downsides of running a sale like this: you’re at the whim of your affiliates. It’s also why having a big community of your own is so important. Yet while we had a lot of sales from our own community, we wouldn’t have seen such great success if not for our affiliates.

This kind of uncertainty is unavoidable when you work with other people. But I see a few ways to prepare for it:

  • Make it super easy to participate, to encourage as much affiliate sharing as possible. We provided all affiliates with marketing copy and graphics, so literally all they had to do was grab their affiliate link, cut and paste our newsletter copy or social updates, and send to their community. A handful of affiliates said they shared more because we made it so easy, but there were also some people, even big-name bloggers, who were intimidated by the process and ended up not sharing at all.
  • Make it worth their while. Affiliates are more willing to make room for your promotion in their marketing calendar if they’re likely to make good money. A handful of our affiliates earned several thousand dollars this year, with our top affiliate bringing home $7,500, which is a pretty good chunk of change for simply telling your community about an offer. It’s not always the biggest affiliates who make the most money; it’s also about how well the offer fits with the niche each affiliate’s community cares about.
  • Count on some affiliates dropping out at the last minute. This happened last year, too; it’s unavoidable, even if you’ve worked with most of your affiliates before. Some people simply won’t follow through on what they promised, and you can’t force them to! All you can do is work those drop-outs into your sales projections, to make sure you’ll still have big-picture success even if some affiliates decide not to play.

3. Slow but steady wins the race. I remember thinking last year that sales were coming in slowly, and feeling anxiety over whether we’d hit our targets. The same thing happened this year: sales rolled in little by little, gradually gaining momentum. The difference was that this year, I knew that slow burn was normal, and it would all add up.

The only time we saw a rush of purchases was during the last six hours or so of the sale. Let me tell you: those last six hours are exhilarating, not to mention addicting; it’s such a rush when you see a new sale or two or three every time you refresh your browser!

More on that $72,000 in revenue

Let’s come back to our bottom-line revenue for a moment, because I imagine a few of you were shocked to see we earned $72,000 in three days. That’s more than some writers make in a year!

While I’m proud of my team for making this happen, I also want to tell you what that $72,000 really means. Too often, we see entrepreneurs throw out huge revenue numbers, and all context is completely lost. I hate when entrepreneurs rely solely on revenue as a means of measuring success, because it overlooks so many other pieces of the pie. And I’m not even talking about whether the customer is happy — I’m referring to other financial pieces, like expenses. What good is $72,000 if you spent $90,000 to get there?

So let’s look at the math behind that $72,000 in revenue.

Our payments to affiliates totaled nearly $23,000. That brought our profits before expenses to $49,000.

Expenses for the bundle itself were about $5,000. (I haven’t figured it out exactly yet.) That includes extra hours for my team, Facebook ads, design for promotional materials, a server upgrade, and more. (It does NOT include my time spent on the bundle.) That brings us to $44,000.

Last year’s bundle paid for us to run the site for much of 2014, but not all of it. By the time we ran the bundle this year, we had spent $13,000 beyond what we’d earned from the site. So some of this year’s earnings go toward paying back that investment (which was subsidized by managing blogs for clients). That takes us to $31,000.

What will we do with $31,000?

The Write Life, at the moment, is costing about $4,000 to run each month. Why is it so expensive? Because I pay an editor, a few writers, a social media helper, a tech-support company and more. We also pay for a number of digital tools like MailChimp (for newsletters), MediaTemple (for hosting) and Hootsuite (for social media). It all adds up!

If I did all the work for the site myself — like blogger Lindsay and her husband Bjork do over at Pinch of Yum — it wouldn’t cost as much, and earnings would go into my pocket rather than toward covering costs. But I’m busy managing our client work and other projects (not to mention this blog!), and having my awesome team members work on The Write Life frees me up to do that.

We have nine more months in 2015. If The Write Life continues to cost $4,000/month, we’ll spend $36,000 to keep it going for the rest of the year.

Except we’re starting to earn revenue on the site, mainly through affiliate advertising and direct advertising. (Contact us if you want to reach writers through an ad!) That means we should be able to cover some of those monthly expenses, leaving us with, say $10,000 to reinvest in the site in another way. We’re thinking that reinvestment will come in the form of a redesign, but we’ll see how the year pans out.

As much as I’d like that $72,000 to go directly into the company bank account… it’s not quite that easy. When you’re investing in a growing website, paying a team and managing a number of other projects under the company umbrella, that cash gets accounted for rather quickly.

Can I answer any questions for you about how we ran this bundle deal? What would you like to know?

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